Demos’ public services report compounds problems

Demos’ latest report from the “Progressive Conservatism Project” focuses on local leadership, empowerment of front line staff to innovate, and cutting back bureaucratic waste. As a general approach, Demos’s analysis hits some worthwhile points. Unfortunately the report, aimed at Conservative policy makers, reverts to ideology from roughly the second sentence where the authors claim that public services “do not give us what we want.”

The authors broad dismissal of the public sector is based on surveys of public perception. This both misinterprets the evidence and paradoxically perpetuates the trend. Talking down public services both reduces morale and, when reported in the media, gives the impression that things are worse than they are. As this chart from the NHS Confederation shows public satisfaction trails patient satisfaction. This is not to say that services are as good as they could or should be, but this approach to public opinion is misleading.

The report also refers to restructuring organisations and changing the regulatory architecture (slightly ironic for a report criticising constant change). Sometimes it is useful for a think tank to simplify a problem, but the solutions proposed take the thought out of thought-provoking. The National Audit Office is an organ of Parliament, not government, allowing elected MPs to hold the executive to account and the Audit Commission is an independent body that ensures public money is not wasted or stolen. Abolishing these bodies would reduce our ability to ensure purchasers, users and voting citizens can be assured that providers are not running off with the money.

Similarly, the recommendation for devolving budgets to service lines is already happening across the NHS. But this requires more, not less management. ‘Removing middle managers’ is a tabloid slogan not a policy recommendation unless you want brain surgeons doing their own books. Processes could be streamlined, duplication removed, and management improved, but that would require more detailed knowledge and research.

Behind the bluster and hyperbole, there are some more constructive thoughts from the “red Tories.” They are right that staff morale and professionalism are recognised as being key to improvement (and efficiency), and some reforms have disillusioned front line staff, crowding out their knightly motivations. Government has recognised this. There are examples where staff engagement has been used as the means to organisational transformation, and the ‘new professionalism’ features strongly in the current Cabinet Office public service reform agenda. But again the report runs behind the policy and the evidence.

What is more bizarre is the claim that the private sector can pick the best people, while the low status public sector gets the leftovers. Top graduates seem to disagree. While the attractiveness of City firms plummeted in the most recent Times Top 100 graduate employers survey, the civil service, NHS, teaching and BBC are all in the top 10, despite more modest salaries.

So maybe things are not as doom and gloom as Demos make out. There is a lot of talk at the moment about the need for efficiencies in public services. Progressives should be angry about waste and poor quality where services let people down. But the fact that future public service budgets will ultimately have to suffer to bail out recent market failures should not open the door for conservatives to dismiss the progress that has already been made improving services. It is right to revisit reforms to ensure that they harness rather than crowd out professionalism, and to free up local innovation and leadership. But throwing around simplistic slogans – public services are failing so sack the managers and auditors – does not move the debate on for progressives, and is likely to compound the problems of public perception and staff morale.

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